Are we getting there? Transit Agency Leadership - Demographics and Data - TransitCenter
August 28, 2014
Are we getting there? Transit Agency Leadership – Demographics and Data
MTA HQ  Photo Credit: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin

MTA HQ Photo Credit: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin

TransitCenter’s executive director David Bragdon recently outlined his vision for the Transit Agency of the Future in Urban Omnibus. His future agency

“would not only have a broader sense of mission, but would be freer to adopt more modern management practices that will help it deliver…. With so many crossovers in private operations, public data, and private uses, our future transit agency would blur the line between public and private sectors in a way we haven’t yet pioneered.”

Who are those pioneers? Who is most likely to lead the transit agency of the future and what will their demographics and expertise look like?

I strongly believe these future “Merchants of Mobility” will be more representative of their ridership, come from a broad swath of educational backgrounds and contribute diverse range of skill sets. Transit agencies have a long road ahead if they aim to meet this criteria.

On transit today, there are more women than men, minorities make up the majority of riders, and immigrants are twice as likely to be on board than those born in the US. Yet, in a 2007 TCRP report titled ‘Racial and Diversity in State DOT’s and Transit Agencies’, researchers found that in official, administrative, and professional positions today’s agencies underutilize white, Hispanic and American Indian women, and Hispanic men, while over-utilizing white and black men.

Further, an agency that spans the gap between the private and public sector must employ those with more diverse expertise and backgrounds than solely planning and engineering, The stars of the transportation world today boast degrees in marketing management, law and a PhD in literature, hardly what you would describe as traditional transportation fields. An agency with a broad sense of mission must embrace other professions such as economics, marketing, and public health and real estate development. Echoed by the American Public Transportation Association or APTA in their policy memo titled “The Future of Public Transportation Employment,” they stress that

“the industry will need a variety of professionals not commonly associated with bus and train operations.”

Then how much progress have transit agencies made? It’s hard to tell.

APTA’s annual Fact Book lacks any data on the demographics of agencies beyond employee counts. Neither does the National Transit Database. The 2007 TCRP report found agencies are inconsistent at submitting their Equal Employment Opportunity reports that measure workforce demographics and have little incentive to do so. They surveyed the 50 largest transit agencies accounting for 80 percent of all transit employees. The researchers found the analysis difficult due only 22 agencies submitting completed reports and “variances in what information was reported and how the information was reported.” Even the human resource managers at the agencies do not have full confidence in the accuracy of their employment reports, with only 58% of them saying they were “Extremely confident.”

The inability to understand who is actually in the transit agency workforce, their background and what skillsets they contribute is a detriment to the field as a whole. Transit’s greatest resource comes not from its buses and trains, but from the employees, staff and leadership who make them run. Agencies must make an equal effort to collect demographic and professional data on their employees as they do their physical infrastructure and performance.

Transit agencies may very well be embracing a diversity of experience and backgrounds in their leadership, but without clear, consistent, and accessible employee demographic data, it’s difficult to know.

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